Readers!

A big thank you to all those donated or subscribed during my summer fund-raising drive for Behind the Black. I cannot express deeply enough how much I appreciate your support!

 

Donations are still welcome, as indicated by the tip jar to the right (or on the bottom of the page on mobile devices). I will simple not beg for them as much, for a little while at least.

 

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Paul Allen dead at 65

Paul Allen of Microsoft fame and the man behind Stratolaunch passed away today at the age of 65.

Allen ranked among the world’s wealthiest individuals. As of Monday afternoon, he ranked 44th on Forbes’ 2018 list of billionaires with an estimated net worth of more than $20 billion.

Through Vulcan, Allen’s network of philanthropic efforts and organizations, the Microsoft co-founder supported research in artificial intelligence and new frontier technologies. The group also invested in Seattle’s cultural institutions and the revitalization of parts of the city.

What this will mean for Stratolaunch of course cannot be predicted. Its design — using a giant airplane to air-launch payloads into orbit — is somewhat radical, a fact that generally requires the will and power of a single individual to force it to fruition. Allen’s absence here could make the completion of their effort much more difficult.

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China launches two GPS-style satellites

In launching two more GPS-style satellites with its Long March 3B rocket, China today also did their first test of equipment to be used in a parachute system designed to recover the rocket’s first stage.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) confirmed the mission to be a success four hours later, following direct insertion of the Beidou-3 satellites into their intended medium Earth orbits (MEO).

The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) which developed the Long March 3B rocket reported that data logging and active tracking equipment was placed aboard for tests to determine to altitude and timing for future parachute landings for boosters.

The trial phase of parachute booster landings is expected in 2019. Expended rocket boosters frequently land in or near populated areas downrange of Xichang.

It is about time. The article also included a short video showing the booster wreakage that landed near a town during a previous launch. For any nation to allow rocket stages crashing near habitable areas speaks poorly of that nation.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

28 China
17 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
6 Europe (Arianespace)

In the national rankings China leads the U.S. now 28 to 25. I must add that with every launch China is setting a new record for itself in its annual totals. Previously its highest total of launches in a year had been 20.

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Giant planets around young star defy model predictions

The uncertainty of science: The recent discovery of four Saturn/Jupiter-sized planets orbiting a star only about two million years old throws a wrench into all existing solar system formation theories.

The star, CI Tau, is located about 500 light years away in a highly-productive stellar ‘nursery’ region of the galaxy. Its four planets differ greatly in their orbits: the closest (the hot Jupiter) is within the equivalent of the orbit of Mercury, while the farthest orbits at a distance more than three times greater than that of Neptune. The two outer planets are about the mass of Saturn, while the two inner planets are respectively around one and 10 times the mass of Jupiter.

The discovery raises many questions for astronomers. Around 1% of stars host hot Jupiters, but most of the known hot Jupiters are hundreds of times older than CI Tau. “It is currently impossible to say whether the extreme planetary architecture seen in CI Tau is common in hot Jupiter systems because the way that these sibling planets were detected – through their effect on the protoplanetary disc – would not work in older systems which no longer have a protoplanetary disc,” said Professor Cathie Clarke from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, the study’s first author.

According to the researchers, it is also unclear whether the sibling planets played a role in driving the innermost planet into its ultra-close orbit, and whether this is a mechanism that works in making hot Jupiters in general. And a further mystery is how the outer two planets formed at all.

“Planet formation models tend to focus on being able to make the types of planets that have been observed already, so new discoveries don’t necessarily fit the models,” said Clarke. “Saturn mass planets are supposed to form by first accumulating a solid core and then pulling in a layer of gas on top, but these processes are supposed to be very slow at large distances from the star. Most models will struggle to make planets of this mass at this distance.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, the present models are absurdly premature. We simply don’t know enough to formulate any theory that can be taken seriously.

This is not to say that models shouldn’t be formulated, only to emphasize that no one should consider them predictive of any part of reality. They give astronomers some guidance on what to look for, but if they take them too seriously they might not look in the right places.

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Hayabusa-2 will do two touchdown rehearsals prior to landing in January

In order to test whether they can bring Hayabusa-2 down to the surface within a circle only 20 meters (65 feet) across (the largest smooth landing area they have found so far on Ryugu), their engineering team has decided to first do two more touchdown rehearsals in October.

In the area where the spacecraft will touchdown, it is dangerous to have boulders with a height greater than about 50cm. Since the length of the sampler horn is about 1m and the spacecraft will be to be slightly inclined during the touchdown, there is a possibility that if a boulder with a height above about 50cm is present, it will strike the main body of the spacecraft or the solar panels. Viewed from the position in Figure 2, there is no boulder larger than 50cm in the area L08-B. L08-B is the widest part within all the candidate sites without a boulder larger than 50cm.

The difficulty is that area L08-B is only about 20m in diameter. Originally, it was assumed that a safe region for touchdown would be a flat area with a radius of about 50m (100m in diameter). This has now become a radius of just 10m; a fairly severe constraint. On the other hand, during the descent to an altitude of about 50m during the MINERVA-II1 and MASCOT separation operations, we were able to confirm that the spacecraft can be guided within a position accuracy of about 10m for a height 50m above the surface of Ryugu (Figure 3). This is a promising feature for touchdown.

Although the spacecraft can be controlled with a position error of 10m at an altitude down to 50m, there remains the question of whether this accuracy can be retained as the spacecraft descends to the surface. This must be confirmed before touchdown operations. Therefore, the touchdown itself will be postponed until next year, during which time we will have two touchdown rehearsals; TD1-R1-A and TD1-R3.

After the rehearsals in October they must wait until January to do the landing because in November and December the sun will be in-between the Earth and the spacecraft, making operations more difficult. They want to also use this time to review the results of the rehearsals to better prepare for the January landing.

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Curiosity sends down images for the first time in weeks

Good news! For the first time since September 15 Curiosity has sent back images.

The last raw images were received on Sol 2171, equivalent to September 15. Today’s images (Sol 2199) from the front and rear hazard cameras and the two navigation cameras suggest that the engineers have solved the computer issues that prevented the rover from sending its science data to Earth.

No press release has yet been released, but I suspect we shall see something shortly.

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Updates on Russian investigation of Soyuz launch failure

Three stories from Russia today on the investigation into last week’s launch failure during a Soyuz launch to ISS.

The first two simply outline additional changes in the Russian upcoming Soyuz launch forced upon them by the failure. It is already clear that the December launch of a new crew will be delayed also.

The third story has one piece of information that I think is intriguing:

The emergency commission looks into the Baikonur spaceport staff who worked on the Soyuz-FG carrier rocket preparing it for the launch with the manned capsule Soyuz MS-10 atop, but the liftoff ended up in a failure, a source said.

“Some members of the emergency commission are staying at the Baikonur Cosmodrome to investigate the circumstances of the failure of the Soyuz-FG rocket. They will have to check all the employees who were working on the rocket,” he said.

That they specifically mention the investigation of the employees who worked on both the rocket and the capsule suggests that they are seriously considering the possibility that one of those individuals might be the cause of both this failure as well as the drill hole in the Soyuz capsule now at ISS.

Nor can anyone blame them. The evidence so far surrounding the drill hole suggests it was done when the capsule was being prepared for launch at Baikonur. If there is an individual working there with an animus toward the Russian government or its space program, they might have possibility done something to this rocket as well.

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The Facebook political purge

Link here. The article provides a list of almost 200 of the over 800 political pages that Facebook purged from their site on October 11.

A quick scan of those pages undeniably suggests they are almost all conservative or religious. Some might have been spam distributors, but many were clearly not, especially those with followers of one million and more.

It is Facebook’s right to decide who gets to use their platform. It is everyone else’s right to decide whether they wish to support Facebook. This is another one of many reasons to dump them, and go elsewhere.

This action also confirms my decision to refuse to use Facebook. I don’t deal with unethical companies or organizations (even if it costs me money). And what makes Facebook unethical here is their dishonesty. They claim to be non-partisan, that they are not a Democratic Party leftist operation. Meanwhile, they continually prove by their actions, such as this, that they are lying and that their agenda is to help get Democrats elected and to further leftist policy, while squelching the speech of their opponents.

Life is too valuable for me to make deals with the devil. If it means I will have 30 pieces of silver less in my bank, I think that is a very good deal.

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Trump scraps academic EPA air pollution panel

The head of EPA in the Trump administration has scrapped the academic EPA air pollution panel that has dominated the agency’s air quality control standards for decades.

Andrew Wheeler, the acting chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), yesterday fired a panel of scientific experts charged with assisting the agency’s latest review of air quality standards for particulate matter. He also scrapped plans to form a similar advisory panel to aid in a recently launched assessment of the ground-level ozone limits.

Those steps, coupled with Wheeler’s previously announced decision to concentrate authority in a seven-member committee made up mostly of his appointees, quickly sparked objections that the agency is intent on skewing the outcome of those reviews in favor of industry.

…Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is supposed to review the adequacy of the standards for particulate matter, ozone and four other common pollutants every 5 years with help from outside experts. While the seven-member committee, officially known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), has the lead in the process, the [scrapped] review panels are supposed to provide additional know-how in assessing the relevant scientific literature, which can span a variety of academic disciplines.

Essentially the acting administrator is continuing the effort of the former EPA head, Scott Pruitt, to de-emphasize the domination of the leftist academic community in these matters. Naturally, the academics are screaming, but then, screaming has recently become the left’s only debating point in all matters of national discussion.

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Chandra goes into safe mode

When it rains it pours: The Chandra X-ray Observatory went into into safe mode on October 10 for reasons that are either not yet understood or have not yet been revealed.

Chandra, Spitzer, and Hubble are the three remaining of the original four great observatories proposed in the late 1980s, with the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory the fourth. Compton was de-orbited in 2000. Spitzer’s infrared observational capabilities became limited when its cryogenic cooling gas became exhaused in 2009.

Hubble and now Chandra are both in safe mode, leaving astronomy badly crippled.

This situation is actually the fault of the astronomical community, which in the early 2000s put all its money behind the James Webb Space Telescope, leaving little for the construction of replacement space telescopes for either Hubble or Chandra. In addition, the astronomical community has continued to put is money behind similar big, expensive, and giant projects like Webb, pushing for WFIRST with its 2011 decadal survey. Like Webb, WFIRST will cost billions and take almost a decade to build and launch, assuming there are no delays.

Meanwhile, the workhorses in orbit are failing one by one.

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Update on Hubble: no real news

NASA today released an update on the effort to bring the Hubble Space Telescope out of safe mode and back to full operation.

The only new information they really provide is what they will do, depending on whether they can fix the back up gyroscope or not.

If the team is successful in solving the problem, Hubble will return to normal, three-gyro operations. If it is not, the spacecraft will be configured for one-gyro operations, which will still provide excellent science well into the 2020s, enabling it to work alongside the James Webb Space Telescope and continue groundbreaking science.

In other words, if they cannot find a way to get this third gyro functioning properly, they will shut down one of the two remaining working gyros so that it can operate as a backup, and operate the telescope on one gyroscope.

I find the last section of the quote above very amusing, in a dark sort of way. Not only does NASA rationalize the sad loss of Hubble’s ability to take sharp images, it tries to rationalize the decade-long delays it has experienced building the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb was supposed to have been launched in 2011. It should have been up there already, working alongside Hubble for the past seven years.

Now, the best we can hope for is that Webb will finally reach space while Hubble is still functioning, in a crippled condition. I would not be surprised however if Webb is further delayed, and Hubble is gone before it gets into space.

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Branson suspends negotiations with Saudi Arabia

Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson today announced that he is suspending negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s investment funds because of their involvement in the disappearance and possible murder of a journalist in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Branson said in a statement.

It was expected that Saudi Arabia was going to invest about a billion dollars in Branson’s space companies, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

Branson has also suspended his directorship in two Saudi tourism projects.

I must wonder if what really has happened is that the Saudi’s were becoming reluctant to commit funds to Branson because of the lack of success at Virgin Galactic, and Branson is therefore providing himself cover for the failure of the negotiations by claiming it was he that pulled out, for different reasons.

At the same time, what happened to Khashoggi might justify Branson’s actions.

He had an appointment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect some documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee — a certificate showing that he was divorced from his first wife. He entered the consulate on Oct. 2 at 1:14 p.m., asking his fiancee to wait outside for him. She did. Until 2 a.m. He never emerged.

A number of news outlets, citing Turkish sources, are reporting that Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor of a Saudi newspaper, regime critic and Washington Post contributor, was murdered. The New York Times quoted sources who said that 15 Saudi agents from the security services, including one autopsy expert, entered Turkey that same day on two chartered flights. They departed that evening. The Saudis claim that Khashoggi left the consulate an hour after he arrived and have no idea what became of him. The Turks would like to send a forensic team inside, but the Saudis have refused.

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Stratolaunch completes taxi test at 80 mph

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch this week completed a series of taxi tests with its giant airplane Roc, reaching speeds as much as 80 mph.

This is a little less than half the speed required for take-off. It also appears that they are proceeding very cautiously with these taxi tests, increasing the speed with each new test by small amounts, about 20 to 40 mph.

The big moment will of course be when this giant plane actually takes off. It appears that might happen within a month or so.

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Rocket Lab officially opens new rocket facility

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today unveiled a new rocket production facility designed to mass produce its rockets.

The new 7,500 sq/m (80,700 sq/ft) rocket development and production facility in Auckland, is designed for rapid mass production of the Electron rocket. Adding to Rocket Lab’s existing production facility and headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, the new facility brings Rocket Lab’s manufacturing footprint to more than 4.5 acres and enables the company to build an Electron rocket every week.

The new facility was officially opened on 12 October 2018 NZDT, by Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck and special guest William Shatner, best known for his role as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek series and films.

It suddenly occurred to me that the construction of this facility might explain the long delay in Rocket Lab’s next launch. I suspect they wanted to incorporate any corrections or redesign to the malfunctioning motor controller that was identified just prior to a planned launch in June.

This also suggests that once they complete their next two launches, now scheduled for November and December, they will hit the ground running and will be aiming for frequent launches, maybe as many as once per week.

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Updates on yesterday’s Soyuz failure

The Russian investigation into yesterday’s Soyuz launch failure has tentatively identified a malfunctioning valve as a possible source of the failure.

“The state commission has tentatively established a malfunction of the fuel dump valve of the rocket’s oxidizer tank:exhaust gas coming from the valve pushes a side section away from the center section. The valve appeared to be defective and failed to function,” the source said.

The valve passed the preflight check, he said. “It was opened before the launch, and closed afterwards consistent with the procedure,” the source said.

Once the rocket is fueled, the valve dumps redundant oxygen. “It is closed several minutes before the launch. It is supposed to open after the side section separates from the central section, but that did not happen,” the source said.

The “side section” refers to the Soyuz’s strap-on boosters. The “central section” refers to its core stage. From this report it appears the failure of the valve has been linked to a collision between the stages at separation.

“There are no final versions but the primary cause is understandable and is related to the collision of a side element making part of the first stage. A collision occurred during the separation of the first and second stages,” the Roscosmos official said.

“A deviation from the standard trajectory occurred and apparently the lower part of the second stage disintegrated. The rocket stopped its normal flight and after that the automatic system did its work,” Krikalyov said.

An element of the booster’s first stage collided with the second stage, Krikalyov said. “This could have been caused by the failure of the system of the normal separation, which should have been activated. We will analyze the causes in detail,” the Roscosmos official said.

This is obviously only a preliminary result, and should be treated with caution. Meanwhile, the investigation has also launched a criminal investigation. This doesn’t surprise me, as the Russians will sometimes consider some things, such as incompetence, as falling under criminal statutes. Considering the discovery of a drilled hole on a launched Soyuz capsule only a few weeks ago, however, I think they are probably even more paranoid than normal.

Update: Russia has decided they will launch a unmanned Soyuz mission before resuming manned flights.

This is definitely going to impact ISS operations, and cancels a December manned Soyuz launch.

The Soyuz capsules attached to ISS have a 200 day lifespan in space. Thus, the crews on board cannot stay past those dates, which means if launches get delayed for a significant period the station might end up without a crew. NASA has said ISS can be operated in this manner, but I also know they want to avoid this if at all possible.

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MASCOT’s journey on Ryugu

MASCOT's journey on Ryugu

MASCOT’s German science team has released a summary of the lander/hopper’s results and seventeen hour journey across the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, shows the spacecraft approach, landing, and numerous hops across the surface. If you click on the image you can see the full high resolution image.

Having reconstructed the events that took place on asteroid Ryugu, the scientists are now busy analysing the first results from the acquired data and images. “What we saw from a distance already gave us an idea of what it might look like on the surface,” reports Ralf Jaumann from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research and scientific director of the MASCOT mission. “In fact, it is even crazier on the surface than expected. Everything is covered in rough blocks and strewn with boulders. How compact these blocks are and what they are composed of, we still do not know. But what was most surprising was that large accumulations of fine material are nowhere to be found – and we did not expect that. We have to investigate this in the next few weeks, because the cosmic weathering would actually have had to produce fine material,” continues Jaumann.

The spacecraft apparently bounced eight times after first contact, then executed three hops. The rubble pile nature that is observed I think explains why the Hayabusa-2 science team decided to delay its own landing for a few months so they could figure out a plan. It really appears that Ryugu does not have any smooth flat spots, as expect.

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Zimmerman op-ed: Bring on more Kavanaughs!

Today the website American Greatness posted an op-ed by yours truly, entitled Bring on More Kavanaughs! Key quote:

Now is the time to look these bullies in the eyes, and tell them that we will not be intimidated, that we will stand for what we believe, and we will not bow to their smears and slanders and screaming protesters who know nothing of us, care nothing for us, and are increasingly willing to harm us and our children because we reject their oppressive and overbearing demands.

Check it out. It has nothing to do with space, but everything to do with having and keeping a civilization that can make the exploration of space possible.

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Astronomers double the number of known fast radio bursts

Using a radio telescope in Australia astronomers have now doubled the number of known fast radio bursts.

Fast radio bursts come from all over the sky and last for just milliseconds. Scientists don’t know what causes them but it must involve incredible energy—equivalent to the amount released by the Sun in 80 years.

“We’ve found 20 fast radio bursts in a year, almost doubling the number detected worldwide since they were discovered in 2007,” said lead author Dr Ryan Shannon, from Swinburne University of Technology and the OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence.

In other words, only forty bursts total have ever been detected. The data here however suggests that the bursts are coming from very far away and from the early universe, information which will help scientists figure out what is causing them.

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Hayabusa-2 landing on Ryugu delayed until January

Because of the roughness of the surface of Ryugu, the Hayabusa-2 science team has decided to delay the landing of the spacecraft on the asteroid from the end of this month until late January at the earliest.

JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda said they needed more time to prepare the landing as the latest data showed the asteroid surface was more rugged than expected.

“The mission … is to land without hitting rocks,” Tsuda said, adding this was a “most difficult” operation. “We had expected the surface would be smooth … but it seems there’s no flat area.”

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This decision is a wise one. They will have the ability to land very precisely, and this will give them time to find the least risky spot. It does indicate however that the landing itself is going to be risky, which is probably why they want more time to gather data beforehand. Should the landing fail, the mission will essentially be over. This way they can maximize what they learn.

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Blue Origin delays New Shepard and New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin announced yesterday that they are delaying the first manned test flights of their suborbital New Shepard spacecraft until next year.

The announcement also outlined their planned test launch schedule for their orbital New Glenn rocket, now set to launch for the first time in 2021, delayed from 2020 as previously announced.

I find it interesting that the same day the Air Force announces that it is giving this company a half billion dollars for development of this rocket, the company reveals that it is delaying the launch for one year. To my mind, the extra money should have helped them keep their schedule, instead of causing a delay.

What instead happens in Washington, however, is that the subsidized companies now stretch out their program in order to get more government money, focused more on that cash then on building anything. Witness for example Boeing and SLS.

What makes this strange is that Blue Origin already has plenty of capital, to the tune of about a billion per year, from Jeff Bezos. His investment should really be plenty for this company to do what it needs to do.

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Audit of SLS predicts more cost overruns and delays

Ever get a feeling of deja vu? A report by NASA’s inspector general yesterday slammed NASA and Boeing for their management of the SLS program, noting that the first unmanned launch will likely be delayed further and the cost for the program will go up another $4 billion.

The much-anticipated premiere of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will likely see yet another push to the right, this time beyond mid-2020, as the program faces billions in cost overruns, according to a scathing audit released Wednesday by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

Originally slated to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39B in December 2017, a 322-foot-tall version of the rocket known as SLS Block 1 will likely still be unprepared for a liftoff on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 by June 2020, auditors said. Even if teams could technically meet that deadline, NASA would need to offer Boeing, the contractor building the first two core stages, an infusion of $1.2 billion: $800 million to secure first stage delivery to KSC by December 2019 and an additional $400 million to make sure EM-1 launches by June 2020.

“Consequently, in light of the Project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” a portion of the 50-page report reads.

The report [pdf] states that Boeing’s budget will have to double to $8 billion to meet these demands. In truth, SLS has cost the taxpayers a lot more than that, probably in the range in excess of $30 billion, if you add up all the yearly appropriations from Congress specifically applied to this rocket project and extend them through the first manned launch, now probably not taking place prior to 2024. (See my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, to see the breakdown.)

If this audit is correct, and I see no reason not to believe it, it will have taken the modern NASA more than twenty years to build and launch a single manned capsule, with a total cost of over $60 billion.

SpaceX built Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Dragon cargo, and Dragon manned in about half that time, for a cost of about $2 billion. Falcon Heavy alone cost $500 million, and took only seven years.

From whom would you buy the product?

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Soyuz upper stage fails, forces emergency landing of manned capsule

During a manned Soyuz launch today the rocket’s upper stage failed, forcing an emergency landing of the Soyuz capsule.

A normally reliable Soyuz FG rocket malfunctioned two minutes after liftoff from Kazakhstan Thursday, forcing a Russian cosmonaut and his NASA crewmate to execute an emergency abort and a steep-but-safe return to Earth a few hundred miles from the launch site. Russian recovery crews reported the crew came through the ordeal in good shape. “NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are in good condition following today’s aborted launch,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted from Kazakhstan.

…two minutes and two seconds after liftoff, just a few seconds after the rocket’s four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters separated from the central core stage, something went wrong. Long-range tracking cameras showed the strap-ons and what appeared to be multiple other objects falling away from the rocket.

“Failure of the booster,” a translator called out, presumably relaying a report from Ovchinin to Russian mission control near Moscow. “Failure of the booster.” Moments later, he confirmed the Soyuz had separated from the rocket’s upper stage, saying “we are in weightlessness.”

During their descent they experienced g-loads as high as about 7 g’s, which is high but not unprecedented or even close to a record.

The quote above calls the Soyuz “normally reliable.” That description applied up until about a decade ago. In the past decade there have been several failures of that rocket, though all previous failures occurred with an unmanned payload.

With this failure the need to get the American commercial capsules operational has become very urgent, since we now have no way to get humans up to ISS. The astronauts on board ISS have Soyuz capsules for return, but no one can come up to replace them.

For example, one of the reasons cited for delaying the first SpaceX unmanned test flight from December into 2019 was scheduling difficulties at ISS. This might change now and allow an earlier flight.

I have embedded video of the launch below the fold.
» Read more

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